It’s no secret that journalism is in trouble. Information deserts exist where local publications have retreated, and in other places corporate ownership has replaced hometown family newspapers. Politics dating back to the Nixon administration and beyond have played their part.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a partisan thing: every American president has been involved in dismantling our free press. From Ronald Regan’s end of the Fairness Doctrine, which applied to broadcast licensing, to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act, Barack Obama’s arguably excessive use of the Espionage Act and Donald Trump’s outright contempt for journalists with his oft-used expression “fake news”, presidents on both sides of the aisle have had their hands on the workings of America’s media.
There is plenty of room to point fingers at American systems. Brian Karem’s book, “Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It” is a good starting point for a deep dive through history at these points. Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for the book jacket.
The rise of the Internet has also reduced the way the public consumes its news. Newspaper resources that paid for quality journalism have all but disappeared. If you are looking for a job, you are no longer buying a newspaper, you are looking for job portals and applications. Public notices moved to websites and ad sales declined.
Newsrooms shrank with him. Now, at least for the newspaper where I work, our objective has increased. Our goal is to provide our community with local content that is meaningful and important to their daily lives.
Also, with the rise of the Internet, it seems that we now have two different types of readers:
The reader who grew up with newspapers is frustrated to see print publications dwindle and their news outdated. Breaking news in a printed newspaper no longer happens. This demographic feels forgotten and irrelevant as the news cycle focuses on their digital audience. Press subscriptions and advertisers supporting the newspaper’s production plummet. It’s an expected death.
The reader who grew up in the Internet age has a different problem. They expect to read quality journalism for free. Hitting a paywall is a nuisance, and many find out what they want to learn or read from links shared on social media. A digital subscription as cheap as $1 for six months is a tough sell. It’s not a sustainable business model.
Non-profit investigative journalism organizations have sprung up across the country and they are filling a real need in our communities. When communities no longer have a reporter sitting in every courtroom or city council meeting, we have people in power who are not held to account. Access to public records and scrutiny of public policy are imperative. The lack of resources to provide this locally is an effective nut against our free press. While nonprofit journalism is a welcome palliative, it cannot be the solution. Non-profit work tends to highlight gaps in our systems.
Journalism is looking for its iPod. Let me explain. Remember that at the turn of the century, at the dawn of the internet age and music lovers were burning playlists onto blank CDs, two young people came along and developed a file sharing system called Napster: a file-sharing software with ethical issues that disregarded the artist’s digital rights. It had a quick and profound effect on the music industry. iTunes and the iPod have revolutionized the way we consume music.
Journalism and the way America consumes its information is now at the heart of the news. In some ways, social media is our Napster. As in the music industry, song quality and delivery expectations are subjective. But you won’t find journalists on stage “America has talent.”
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Hopefully America values its free press as much as it does its music and better distribution solutions start to surface.
— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is an award-winning wife, mother and opinion columnist.